Thursday, November 29

Simon & Schuster's Archway Publishing: Is It Ethical?

Simon & Schuster's Archway Publishing: Is It Ethical?

The Dream


When I was a kid I had a dream. I wanted to tell stories. Great stories. Stories other people would listen to with bated breath, leaning forward to hear whether the hero would escape the deadly clutches of the monster.

Or something like that. When I was a kid there probably would have been a fairy somewhere in the mix.

Penguin Publishing was part of that dream. (Yes, I was an odd child.)

To my young imagination, Penguin was special. It was like heaven, but for stories. It was where stories got to go if they were very, very, good. I didn't even think about getting paid for my stories, my goal was just to create something awesome enough that, one day, Penguin would want to publish it.

It never occurred to me writing was a business--but then I was eight and I hadn't yet grasped the whole need-money-to-live thing.

When I grew up--well, I don't think I've grown up, I just got taller and older--I understood about needing money, but I still thought the folks at Penguin--as well the rest of the Big 6 publishers--were special. I thought they did what they did for the love of books, of stories, of that great vague amorphous category called literature.

I no longer think that.

The Big-6 are BUSINESSES pure and simple and, as such, are tasked with making money.

Period.

Making money, not publishing stories (heaven-worthy or otherwise) is their bottom line.

So why does it shock and dishearten me when yet another publisher goes to the dark side of publishing?

(To my mind, a publisher goes to the dark side when it tries to make money, not from selling stories, but off of authors. Money should flow to the author, not the other way around.)


Simon & Schuster's Archway Publishing


Here's what started my thoughts in this direction. Recently Simon & Schuster formed a partnership with Author House and created their own self-publishing portal, Archway Publishing. (See: Simon & Schuster Partners With Author House To Create Archway Publishing)

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday--we left friends, although barely--in which he shrugged and said, "Well, if Simon & Schuster thinks they can make money off authors, why shouldn't they?"

Thunderstruck at his defense of Simon & Schuster, I spluttered that publishers shouldn't make money from authors, they should make it from sales of books (something to do with the whole publisher thing).

But, once again, my friend shrugged and said, "As long as Simon & Schuster is making money, and it's legal, why should they care? Buyer beware."

I glared at him and wished I had a retort, but I didn't.

Is "ethical business" a contradiction in terms? And, even if it is, don't we want the people who publish our stories to CARE something about writers? I mean, it's not outrageous to suggest a business should treat its client base with respect.

Is it?


The Hook


One reason Simon & Schuster's creation of Archway Publishing bothers me is that new writers will take Simon & Schuster's close association with Archway as indicating endorsement. As in, "If you publish through Archway you'll have a better chance, one day, of being published by us."

It invites new writers to think of Archway as an (expensive) initiation experience, a testing ground to see if their story has what it takes. (By the way, publishing your story yourself on, say, Amazon would do the same thing; if you're shy, you could use a pen name and not tell anyone. If it doesn't sell, keep writing till one does. Show me a professional writer and I'll show you someone mule-stubborn.)

This perception is helped by statements such as this one, found in a FAQ on Archway's site:
[W]e will alert Simon & Schuster to Archway Publishing titles that perform well in the market. Simon & Schuster is always on the lookout for fresh, new voices and they recognize a wealth of talent in Archway authors.
But it doesn't stop there. Simon & Schuster will be referring any unsolicited manuscripts they receive to the Archway program. Writer Beware Blogs writes:
There's also this disturbing tidbit in PW's coverage of the launch: "S&S will refer authors who submit unsolicited manuscripts to the Archway program." I didn't find this in other news coverage, and I'm hoping it's not true--or if it is true, that S&S will re-think it. Such referrals are seriously questionable, since authors who receive them are likely to give them more weight because they come from a respected publisher. (Archway Publishing: Simon & Schuster Adds a Self-Publishing Division)
How is that not taking advantage of new writers? Imagine this:
You've finished your first manuscript, it's a 240,000 word paranormal novel set in the wild west. As you mail off your carefully worded query letter the butterflies in your stomach feel more like elephants doing the tango. Afterward, you joke with your friends and say things like, "Oh, well, I thought I'd start at the top".

Then, after obsessing about it for a month, you get a letter from Simon & Schuster. As you hold it you think: This could be it! Your hands shake so hard it takes a minute to get the envelope open. The white notepaper inside is a blur at first, then you read: Simon & Schuster has referred your manuscript to another publisher!
If that were me several years ago I would have started doing the (highly embarrassing) Scooby dance.

It sounds great, doesn't it? Simon & Schuster has referred your manuscript to another publisher. They believe in it. They believe in you!

That's quite the hook, especially for someone craving affirmation the way a drowning person craves air.


Money Should Always Flow Toward The Author


Archway Publishing doesn't just charge authors between $1,599 and $14,999 to  publish their manuscripts, they also take a hefty royalty. According to paidContent.org:
Archway will pay an ebook royalty of 50 percent of net sales, so if an ebook is distributed to Kindle, for example, an Archway author would receive 50 percent of the sale minus Amazon’s 30 percent fee. (Simon & Schuster launches self-publishing arm with Author Solutions)
I wouldn't be as upset about Archway Publishing if it just charged outrageous sums for helping writers publish their work but gave them 100% of their royalties, at least for ebooks.

I know some writers don't want to do everything themselves, and that's perfectly fine. Many businesses help with things like line editing, cover art, formatting, uploading, and so on, and they charge a flat fee for services rendered. Bookbaby for instance. This is fine.

Imagine your neighbor is selling his house. Imagine he pays someone $30 to mow his lawn and then, on top of that, gives them 50% of the money from the sale of his house. Wouldn't you be flabbergasted? I would! Then why give royalties to the person who formats and uploads a manuscript?


Do Publishers See Writers As Marks?


What do you think? Am I overreacting? I can hold my opinions passionately, but I'm open to other points of view.

What do you think about Simon & Schuster's partnership with Author Solutions? What should the bottom line be for publishers? Making money? They're businesses so it's not unreasonable, but then where do writers fit in? Where do stories fit in? (For Dean Wesley Smith's perspective on Archway Publishing, click here: New Way For Uninformed Writers to Spend Money.)

Perhaps I'm looking at this the the wrong way. Even if making money is the bottom line for a publisher, shouldn't that mandate treating writers well? After all, no writers, no stories. I'd like to see publishers turn a profit then!

... hopefully self-aware androids are a long way off.

Other articles you might like:

- Jim Butcher's Advice For New Writers: Write Every Day
- Using Pinterest To Help Build Your Fictional Worlds
- How To Record Your Own Audiobook: Setting Up A Home Studio

Photo credit: "There is always a bigger fish" by floodllama under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

7 comments:

  1. There is no such thing as "business ethics", there is only "ethics"!

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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  2. This is a great post! I have to agree with you 100% It's a very sad fact of life that it's simply business. Writers are such passionate people and we put our heart and souls into creating our books, and it feels like we are treated like pawns in a horrible game of money making sometimes. If we wasn't so passionate, I guess we wouldn't feel this way. But then again, if we wasn't so passionate, we wouldn't be writers :)

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    1. Well put! Kind of a catch-22 I guess. (grin)

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  3. I'm hyperventilating right now. I so agree with you! Fellow Indies, we are in tough times right now with Amazon working us over (note that I restrained myself and stuck to a POLITE term), and offers like this that amount to malware in the publishing OS. Our moment in the sun where it was easy to get noticed, respected and rewarded for our efforts seems to be clouding over again. I attribute that to our success, and if we stick to our guns and keep pleading our case to the general public, in person or on the web, I anticipate that the sun will come out again.

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    1. Thanks for your Comment Sharon! We can agree to disagree about Amazon. :)

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  4. Yes, we get 'worked over.' But not only by the publishing industry. By the academic institutions that offer an MFA as a fast-track to getting published too; over a period of two years, the professors tell you to connect with them when you've got a manuscript that's ready to go, because 'they have contacts,' meaning literary agents. Please don't get me wrong - I'm glad to have the qualification, because I've learned a lot and I believe it will stand me in good stead in future. Is that knowledge worth the absurd amount of money I paid? No, though that was my decision and I take responsibility for the consequences. So, you can consider that 'simply business' too, but what really riles me is the lack of morality - the so-called professional gatekeepers that are still vocalizing the 'stigma' of self-publishing are the 'contacts' that do favors for their friends. Of course, I might be overgeneralizing now, for which I apologize, but there it is - I've heard it, I've seen it.

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    1. myriteofpassage, excellent point. Thank you. I've read a few articles about the difficulties MFA grads face after school; it's rough. Thanks for your comment and best of luck.

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